If we trace liberal disappointment with President Obama to its origins, to try to pinpoint the moment when his crestfallen supporters realized that this was Not Change They Could Believe In, the souring probably began on December 17, 2008, when Obama announced that conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren would speak at his inauguration. “Abominable,” fumed John Aravosis on AmericaBlog. “Obama’s ‘inclusiveness’ mantra always seems to head only in one direction—an excuse to scorn progressives and embrace the Right,” seethed Salon’s Glenn Greenwald. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow rode the story almost nightly: “I think the problem is getting larger for Barack Obama.” Negative 34 days into the start of the Obama presidency, the honeymoon was over.
Since then, the liberal gloom has only deepened, as Obama compromise alternated with Obama failure. Liberals speak of Obama in unceasingly despairing terms. “I’m exhausted [from] defending you,” one supporter confessed to Obama at a town-hall meeting last year.
“We are all incredibly frustrated,” Justin Ruben, MoveOn’s executive director, told the Washington Post in September. “I’m disappointed in Obama,” complained Steve Jobs, according to Walter Isaacson’s new biography. The assessments appear equally morose among the most left-wing and the most moderate of Obama’s supporters, among opinion leaders and rank-and-file voters. In early 2004, Democrats, by a 25-point margin, described themselves as “more enthusiastic than usual about voting.” At the beginning of 2008, the margin had shot up to over 60 percentage points. Now as many Democrats say they’re less enthusiastic about voting as say they’re more enthusiastic.
The cultural enthusiasm sparked by Obama’s candidacy drained away almost immediately after his election. All the passion now lies with the critics, and it is hard to find a liberal willing to muster any stronger support than halfhearted murmuring about the tough situation Obama inherited, or vague hope that maybe in a second term he can really start doing things. (“I’m like everybody, I want more action,” an apologetic Chris Rock said earlier this month. “I believe wholeheartedly if he’s back in, he’s going to do some gangsta shit.”) Obama has already given up on any hope of running a positive reelection campaign and is girding up for a grim slog of lesser-of-two-evils-ism.
Why are liberals so desperately unhappy with the Obama presidency?
There are any number of arguments about things Obama did wrong. Some of them are completely misplaced, like blaming Obama for compromises that senators forced him to make. Many of them demand Obama do something he can’t do, like Maddow’s urging the administration to pass an energy bill through a special process called budget reconciliation—a great-sounding idea except for the fact that it’s against the rules of the Senate. Others castigate Obama for doing something he did not actually do at all (i.e., Drew Westen’s attention-grabbing, anguished New York Times essay assailing Obama for signing a budget deal with cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid that were not actually in the budget in question).
I spend a lot of time rebutting these arguments, and their proponents spend a lot of time calling me an Obama apologist.
Some of the complaints are right, and despite being an Obama apologist, I’ve made quite a few of them myself. (The debt-ceiling hostage negotiations drove me to distraction.) But I don’t think any of the complaints—right, wrong, or otherwise—really explain why liberals are so depressed.
Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.
So, what if we compare Obama with a real alternative? Not to Republicans—that’s too easy—but to Democratic presidents as they lived and breathed?
One variant of liberal disappointment has taken the form of resurgent Clinton nostalgia. Hillary Clinton, removed from the undertow of partisan combat in her role as secretary of State, has enjoyed soaring approval ratings, while Bill has burnished his credentials with a book on fixing the economy. If Bill Clinton (or Hillary Clinton—admirers tend to blur their identities) were in charge, pine their devotees, they wouldn’t have rolled over on the economy. They’d have fought the Republicans on the stimulus and won. “If Hillary gave up one of her balls and gave it to Obama,” James Carville told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast last year, “he’d have two.” Clinton was known for his slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” and has become one repository for frustrated Democrats who believe Obama failed to attack the economic crisis with enough vigor. “No one ever had to tell Hillary that,” a bitter Clinton primary supporter recently remarked to the Daily Beast.
It is odd that Bill Clinton’s imagined role as ass-kicking economic savior has become the object of such extensive liberal fantasy. We don’t have to speculate as to what Clinton would have done if Republicans had blocked his economic stimulus. It actually happened. Clinton had campaigned promising a stimulus bill to alleviate widespread economic pain, with unemployment at 7.5 percent at the start of his term. Like Obama, Clinton needed a handful of Republican senators to pass it (Obama needed two Republican votes to break a filibuster, Clinton three). Clinton’s proposed stimulus was $19.5 billion. Unable to break a Republican filibuster, Clinton offered to pare it down to $15.4 billion. Republicans killed it anyway, creating an image of a Clinton administration in disarray.
Certainly, the circumstances faced by Clinton were different. (For one thing, the recession was far less deep and passed its worst point shortly after he took office, making the case for stimulus less urgent.) Still, nothing in this episode suggests Clinton possessed any special communicative or legislative skill that would have enabled him or his wife, had either held office in 2009, to pass a larger stimulus than the $787 billion bill Obama signed.
Bill Clinton’s election, following a dozen years of Republican presidencies, ushered in buoyant hopes of renewal. But liberals experienced his presidency as immediate and almost continuous deflation and cynicism. Clinton did enjoy one major triumph in his first year, when he passed a budget bill that raised the top tax rate, expanded the earned-income tax credit, created a new national-service program for graduates, and reformed other parts of the budget. This was the progressive apogee of the Clinton administration. Liberals at the time viewed it as a sad half-measure. The focus was on deficit reduction, not public investment, and each iteration of the legislation that worked its way through the congressional machinery emerged less inspiring than the last. “The Senate’s machinations on President Clinton’s budget plan have left many Democratic House members feeling angry and betrayed,” noted a New York Times editorial.
The rest of Clinton’s first two years consisted of a demoralizing procession of debacles and retreats. A series of Clinton appointments—Lani Guinier, Zoe Baird—came under conservative fire and were withdrawn in a panic. He steered his agenda toward right-of-center goals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and a crime bill, serving only to alienate his liberal allies without dampening hysterical attacks from conservatives and the business lobby. Health-care reform collapsed entirely, in part because liberals refused to support a compromise final measure. Six months into Clinton’s presidency, after he had abandoned his effort to integrate gays into the military, Bob Herbert summarized what had already settled as the liberal narrative: “The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread … He doesn’t seem to understand that much of the disappointment and disillusionment is because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone.” Hardly anybody contested that portrait.
After Republicans swept the midterm elections, Clinton moved further rightward. He famously declared that “the era of big government is over” and brought in reptilian operator Dick Morris—not yet the right-wing conspiracy-monger seen on Fox News these days, but distinctly right of center—as his chief political adviser. He signed a welfare-reform bill containing such Draconian provisions that several liberals resigned from his administration in protest.
Okay. So Clinton, upon closer examination, turns out to have suffered from the same pliability and pathological eagerness to please the opposition that allegedly bedevils Obama. But here is a funny thing. If we move back in time toward the last Democratic president before Clinton—Jimmy Carter—we find the same pattern of liberal despondency asserting itself again.
In fact, the liberal failures of Obama and Clinton are but tiny potholes next to the vast gulch of failure that was the Carter presidency. Today, Carter is remembered as a president anchored in liberal values, a revision of history both conservatives and Carter himself are happy to leave uncorrected. But the truth is that Carter’s domestic agenda carried only small bits of liberalism, and those small bits (a consumer-protection agency, tax reform) met with total failure in the Democratic Congress. Carter’s policy accomplishments tilted right of center—he deregulated the airline and trucking industries and cut the capital-gains tax. Most infuriatingly to liberals, Carter refused to push for comprehensive health-care reform. A Carter adviser later recalled that the president “did not see health care as every citizen’s right, nor did he think the government has an obligation to provide it.”
James Fallows departed the Carter administration, where he worked as a speechwriter, and wrote a damning 1979 story in The Atlantic titled “The Passionless Presidency.” Ted Kennedy challenged Carter during the 1980 primaries and came close to unseating him. During the general election, progressive Republican John Anderson waged a third-party bid that won some of the liberal anti-Carter vote. The Times’ editorial board captured the liberal view of the era when it relayed the joke of a voter with a gun to his head who’s asked to choose between Carter and Ronald Reagan and replies, “Shoot.”
Before Carter came Lyndon Johnson. You probably remember this presidency didn’t go well. Protesters outside the White House were calling him a murderer every day; he was challenged in the Democratic primary and pressured to quit his reelection race. So strong was the animus against Johnson that it transferred almost completely undiminished onto his successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, a liberal stalwart. (The demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 were, of course, directed not at Richard Nixon or even Johnson but Humphrey, whom angry demonstrators stalked on the campaign trail until the election.)
But what about John F. Kennedy, the liberal icon? Kennedy’s reputation benefited from a halo of martyrdom, deepened by liberals’ rage against Johnson, which retroactively cast Kennedy as far more liberal than he actually was. In reality, Kennedy’s domestic agenda slogged painfully through a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. He campaigned promising federal aid for education and health insurance for the elderly but didn’t get around to passing either one. The most agonizing struggles came on Kennedy’s civil-rights agenda. His soaring campaign promises quickly grew entangled in a series of bargains with Jim Crow Democrats that liberals justifiably saw as corrupt. Kennedy understood he lacked the votes in Congress to push the civil-rights legislation he promised. He placated James Eastland, a powerful Jim Crow senator from Mississippi, by nominating the arch-segregationist judge William Harold Cox to the federal bench. Civil-rights leaders viewed Kennedy’s machinations with something less than unbridled gratitude. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Kennedy “vacillated” on civil rights. When he set up a meeting with activists, Kennedy was surprised to be “scorched by anger,” as G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot wrote in a recent history of the sixties.
Liberals are dissatisfied because they are incapable of feeling satisfied.
Harry Truman has become the patron saint of dispirited Democrats, the fighting populist whose example is invariably cited in glum contrast to whatever bumbling congenital compromiser happens to hold office at any given time. In fact, liberals spent the entire Truman presidency in a state of near-constant despair. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1946 elections and bottled up Truman’s domestic agenda, rendering him powerless to expand the New Deal, as liberals had hoped he would after the war had ended. Liberal columnist Max Lerner decried Truman’s mania for “cooperation” and his eagerness “to blink [past] the real social cleavage and struggles,” attributing this pathological eagerness to avoid conflict to his “middle-class mentality.” (Some contemporary critics have reached the same psychoanalysis of Obama, substituting his bi-racial background as the cause.) The New Republic’s Richard Strout lamented how “little evidence he has shown of being able to lift up and inspire the masses.” The historian Richard Pells has written that in the eyes of liberals at the time, “the president remained an incorrigible mediocrity.”
An exception to this trend, but only a partial exception, is Franklin Roosevelt, the most esteemed of the historical Democratic president-saints. Roosevelt is hard to compare to anybody, because his achievements were so enormous, and his failures so large as well (court-packing, interning Japanese-Americans). But even his triumphs, gleaming monuments to liberalism when viewed from the historical distance, appear, at closer inspection, to be riddled with the same tribulations, reversals, compromises, dysfunctions, and failures as any other. Roosevelt did not run for office promising to boost deficit spending in order to stimulate the economy. He ran castigating Herbert Hoover for permitting high deficits, then immediately passed an austerity budget in his first year. Roosevelt did come around to Keynesian stimulus, but he never seemed to understand it, and in 1937 he reversed himself again by cutting spending, helping plunge the economy into a second depression eventually mitigated only by war spending.
Liberals frustrated with Obama’s failure to assail Wall Street have quoted FDR’s 1936 speech denouncing “economic royalists,” but that represented just a brief period of Roosevelt’s presidency. Mostly he tried to placate business. When he refused to empower a government panel charged with enforcing labor rights, a liberal senator complained, “The New Deal is being strangled in the house of its friends.” Roosevelt constantly feared his work-relief programs would create a permanent class of dependents, so he made them stingy. He kept the least able workers out of federal programs, and thus “placed them at the mercy of state governments, badly equipped to handle them and often indifferent to their plight,” recalled historian William Leuchtenburg. Even his greatest triumphs were shot through with compromise. Social Security offered meager benefits (which were expanded under subsequent administrations), was financed by a regressive tax, and, to placate southern Democrats, was carefully tailored to exclude domestic workers and other black-dominated professions.
Compared with other Democratic presidents, Roosevelt enjoyed relatively friendly relations with liberals, but there nonetheless existed a left opposition during his time, mostly of socialists and communists, who criticized him relentlessly. Progressive senator Burton Wheeler complained that FDR, “for all his fine talk, really preferred conservatives to progressives.” And actually, the Roosevelt era had the same pattern we see today, of liberals angry with the administration’s compromises, and the administration angry in turn at the liberals. In 1935, Roosevelt adviser Rex Tugwell groused of the liberals, “They complain incessantly that the administration is moving into the conservative camp, but do nothing to keep it from going there.”
And this is only the liberal mood during Democratic presidencies.
For almost all of the past 60 years, liberals have been in a near-constant emotional state of despair, punctuated only by brief moments of euphoria and occasional rage. When they’re not in charge, things are so bleak they threaten to move to Canada; it’s almost more excruciating when they do win elections, and their presidents fail in essentially the same ways: He is too accommodating, too timid, too unwilling or unable to inspire the populace. (Except for Johnson, who was a bloodthirsty warmonger.)
Is it really likely that all these presidents have suffered from the same character flaws? Suppose you’re trying to find dates online, and everybody you meet turns out to be too ugly. Might it be possible that the problem isn’t the attractiveness of the single people in your town but rather your standards?
Of course, the mere fact that the same people make the same complaints all the time does not render all those complaints false. All presidents screw up at least some of the time, and some of them, like Carter, screw things up almost all the time. What’s more, constructive criticism serves a vital role in democracy, and even unreasonable criticism can helpfully push the boundaries of the possible. Yet none of this justifies or explains liberals’ constant depression.
Conservatives are an interesting counterexample. While they are certainly capable of expressing frustration with Republican presidents, conservative disappointment is neither as incessant nor as pervasively depressed as the liberal variety. Conservatives are at least as absolutist as liberals in the ideological demands they make upon their leaders, as evidenced by the willingness of large chunks of the base to commit electoral suicide by nominating the series of clowns and half-wits who have taken turns leading the polls alongside or even above Mitt Romney. At the same time, they are far less likely to turn against their president altogether. They assail the compromise but continue to praise the man. Conservatives did turn against George H.W. Bush after he raised taxes. But they stuck loyally with his son well through his midterm election. They remained consistently loyal to Nixon and Reagan. They’ll circle the wagons around Romney, too—trust me.
Why? Because conservatives are not like liberals. They think differently.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian has a classic bit depicting the followers of “Brian,” a thinly disguised satire of Jesus, as left-wing activists. The movement contains bitterly feuding splinter groups with such names as the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee, and the Popular Front of Judea—the last consisting of one man—all of which hate each other more than the Romans.
The joke was that left-wing politics has always taken the same form: that lefties in Palestine 2,000 years ago would act pretty much like their counterparts in seventies Britain. Political psychologists have found for decades that the joke is pretty much true. Conservatives, compared with liberals, have higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority and prefer order over chaos and continuity over change. They are more likely than liberals to agree with statements like “It is more important to be a team player than to express yourself.” (Interestingly, libertarians tend to resemble liberals on these measures, which may explain why libertarian politics also so frequently resemble a Life of Brian–esque farce.)
The 1968 Democratic convention—“which consisted of spokespersons for about 253 major ideological factions giving each other the finger through clouds of tear gas,” as Dave Barry put it—is the sort of scene that could not occur within the Republican Party. Or consider the contrast in style between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. These two movements, allegedly mirror images of each other, perfectly display the differences between the right and the left. The Occupy activists abhor anything that would force any member to subsume his or her individual autonomy to the greater good. Did the drum circles drive everybody else to distraction? Too bad—you can’t tell the drummers what to do, man. There are no leaders, no organized speakers, no attempts at organizing anything except addressing the protesters’ elemental need for food and shelter. The tea party was mostly able to suppress the racist signs that popped up in the early stages of the movement. Occupy Wall Street has been unable to silence a handful of anti-Semites because it can’t silence anybody.
Democratic Party politics, obviously, do not have the anarchist style on display at Zuccotti Park for almost two months. But liberals’ chronic discontent with their leaders is a fainter version of the same impulses. It is not just that conservatives are more prone than liberals to band together behind a leader in the face of external threat. Liberal politics has a concern with process that is largely absent from conservative politics. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor, defines the contrasting moral styles of right and left like so: Conservatives excel at competition between groups—your team, your nation, your tribe—while liberals care more about fairness within a group.
This aspect of the liberal style expresses itself as a persistent desire to improve not just policy but politics itself. Progressivism developed a century ago out of a desire to cleanse politics of bosses and transactionalism. Republicans are focused only on dismantling government, and the great movements to reform politics have all come from the left. Some liberals attribute their disappointment in Obama to the excessive hopes he raised about representing better, cleaner, more uplifting politics. But the euphoria surrounding Obama’s election differed only in degree from that of previous presidents. Clinton was the Man From Hope, touring the country with Al Gore and promising the renewing spirit of a younger generation. Carter frequently pledged, “I will never lie to you,” and moved the 1976 Democratic convention hall to tears.
The reality of governing can never fulfill this hoped-for version, and so inevitably liberals recoil. Chris Matthews, who famously thrilled to Obama’s inspirational rhetoric, now complains, “Word is out that Obama is a ‘transactional’ politician.” Jon Stewart put it in even more anguished terms, expressing his disappointment that politics itself did not change under Obama: “He ran on this idea that the system and the methodology are corrupt. It felt like the country was upset enough that he had the momentum needed to reevaluate how business is done. Instead, when he got elected, he acted as though the system is so entrenched that it has to be managed.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing in 1949, assailed liberal idealists who were abandoning Truman for the millennial promises of Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party. Schlesinger defined this impulse as a “fear … of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences.” Schlesinger was writing about the left, but his description applies just as well to centrists. Indeed, the unhappy moderate liberals may be the most irrational component of Obama’s let-down supporters. Enraged left-wing bloggers may harbor unrealistic notions of what Democrats could achieve, but they are at least correct that Obama does not fully share their goals.
Is it really likely that all these presidents had the same flaws?
What, by contrast, are we to make of third-party activists like Thomas L. Friedman or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? They have a president who supports virtually everything they want—short-term stimulus, long-term deficit reduction through a mix of taxes and entitlement cuts, clean energy, education reform, and social liberalism. Yet they are agitating for a third party in order to carry out an agenda that is virtually identical to Obama’s. In a column touting the third-party Americans Elect, the closest Friedman comes to explaining why we should have a third party, rather than reelect the politician who already represents their values, is to say that such a party “would have offered a grand bargain on the deficit two years ago, not on the eve of a Treasury default.” He agrees with Obama’s plan, in other words, but proposes to form a new party because he disagrees with his legislative sequencing.
As political analysis, this is pure derangement. It’s the Judean People’s Front for the Aspen Institute crowd. But these sorts of anti-political fantasies arise whenever liberals are forced to confront the crushing ordinariness of governing. (Matthew Miller, a fervent promoter of Americans Elect, likewise pined for a third party in 1996, on the curious grounds that President Clinton wasn’t doing enough to balance the budget.) Liberal disaffection helped Republicans win elections in 2000, 1968, and very nearly in 1948. All those elections came after Democrats had held the White House for at least two terms, and liberal disgust with politics had built up to toxic levels.
There is a catchphrase, which you’ve probably seen on bumper stickers or T-shirts, that captures the reason liberals have trouble maintaining political power: “Stop bitching, start a revolution.” At first blush it sounds constructive. If you consider it for a moment, though, the line assumes that there are two modes of political behavior, bitching and revolution. Since the glorious triumph of revolution never really pans out, eventually you’ll return to the alternative, bitching. But there is a third option that lies between the two—the ceaseless grind of politics.
Which brings us back to Obama. Is it understandable to believe that his administration has been a disappointment to date? Of course. On the other hand, maybe there is something to learn from the frequent (anguished) comparisons liberals make between Obama and FDR. Part of the reason Roosevelt’s record looms so large from a distance is because historians measure these things differently from political activists. Activists measure progress against the standard of perfection, or at least the most perfect possible choice. Historians gauge progress against what came before it.
By that standard, Obama’s first term would indeed seem to qualify as gangsta shit. His single largest policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, combines two sweeping goals—providing coverage to the uninsured and taming runaway medical-cost inflation—that Democrats have tried and failed to achieve for decades. Likewise, the Recovery Act contained both short-term stimulative measures and increased public investment in infrastructure, green energy, and the like. The Dodd-Frank financial reform, while failing to end the financial industry as we know it, is certainly far from toothless, as measured by the almost fanatical determination of Wall Street and Republicans in Congress to roll it back.
Beneath these headline measures is a second tier of accomplishments carrying considerable historic weight. A bailout and deep restructuring of the auto industry that is rapidly being repaid, leaving behind a reinvigorated sector in the place of a devastated Midwest. Race to the Top, which leveraged a small amount of federal seed money into a sweeping national wave of education experiments, arguably the most significant reform of public schooling in the history of the United States. A reform of college loans, saving hundreds of billions of dollars by cutting out private middlemen and redirecting some of the savings toward expanded Pell Grants. Historically large new investments in green energy and the beginning of regulation of greenhouse gases. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women. Elimination of several wasteful defense programs, equality for gays in the military, and consumer-friendly regulation of food safety, tobacco, and credit cards.
Of the postwar presidents, only Johnson exceeds Obama’s domestic record, and Johnson’s successes must be measured against a crushing defeat in Vietnam. Obama, by contrast, has enjoyed a string of foreign-policy successes—expanding targeted strikes against Al Qaeda (including one that killed Osama bin Laden), ending the war in Iraq, and helping to orchestrate an apparently successful international campaign to rescue Libyan dissidents and then topple a brutal kleptocratic regime. So, if Obama is the most successful liberal president since Roosevelt, that would make him a pretty great president, right?
Did liberals really expect more? I didn’t. But when you dig deeper, liberal melancholy hangs not so much on substantive objections but on something more inchoate and emotional: a general feeling that Obama is not Ronald Reagan. Obama invited the contrast with Reagan himself when he noted during the campaign, “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” And yet so far at least, this country does not feel fundamentally, systemically changed by Obama in the way that it is remembered to have been by Reagan.
But here again, memory is problematic. Reagan, you’ll recall, spent most of his administration raising taxes, signing arms-control treaties, and otherwise betraying right-wing dogma. Yes, his accomplishments were more substantive than Nixon’s or Clinton’s, but they were not quite the sweeping, nation-transforming stuff liberals enjoy recalling in horror. In terms of lasting change, Obama probably has matched Reagan—or, at least, he will if he can win reelection and consolidate health-care reform and financial regulation and tilt the Supreme Court further left than he already has.
And yet Obama will never match among Democrats Reagan’s place in the psyche of his own party, as reflected in the endless propaganda campaign to give him full credit for the end of stagflation and communism, the dogmatic insistence that everything the great hero said offers the One True Path for all time, and the project to name every possible piece of American property after him. Republican Reagan-worship is a product of a pro-authority mind-set that liberals, who inflate past heroes only to criticize their contemporaries, cannot match. If recent history is any guide, they are simply not capable of having that kind of relationship with a president. They are going to question their leader, not deify him, and search for signs of betrayal in any act of compromise he or she may commit. This exhausting psychological torment is no way to live. Then again, the current state of the Republican Party suggests it may be healthier than the alternative.
Read The National Interest, Jonathan Chait’s daily column on nymag.com.